Leadership, community, and the current crisis at General Seminary


by Andrew Gerns

On Friday, the news broke that most of the faculty at the General Theological Seminary in New York City have decided to refrain from teaching classes, attending official seminary meetings, and attend Chapel services until they are able to sit down and have a conversation with the Board of Trustees.

Despite a follow up letter from the faculty to the students describing in more detail what it going on, there is still some question as to what is going on.

The conflict has nothing to do with pay, hours, job description, benefits, or perks. There is none of the traditional pocket-book labor issues at stake.

This is not a disagreement over the need for change to they way we do theological education or the way we prepare clergy for ministry. So the Wisdom Year (where in students spend their third year in parishes, particularly those that are small, in distressed communities, or who have lacked regular, full-time priestly ministry, doing and learning parish ministry in “a real-world setting”) is not at issue. The faculty have been supportive of the concept both in theory and in substance.

As far as I can tell the real issues have to do with the leadership style of the dean and his tendency to “Lone Ranger” decisions–even correct ones, but also dubious ones–without debate, discussion or buy-in.

In speaking with, or reading things written by, various stakeholders–some who support the action and some who do not– I have learned the following:

The main issue has to do with the relationship between the faculty and Dean & President especially the consequences of his style of leadership. In particular, those who chosen to take part in the job action cite the apparent tendency of the Dean to hear questions as dissent and to assign hostile intent to those who disagree with his approach.

Dunkle makes no secret of the fact that he is a person who does not believe in collaboration but rather that he prefers to be a leader who keeps and articulates the vision with the expectation that the leaders in the middle will use their talents and skills to carry out his central vision.

The line in the faculty statement about “maturity” has to do with the fact that the Dean has told the students that protest is a form of immaturity and that the problem is that the faculty will not do what they must do to accomplish the mission as he sees it.

So the Dean does not like to waste too much time in listening to or compromising with other stake holders. Especially when that dialogue might delay or temper his vision. He wants to dive right in and get on with it.

Related to this is the fact that he has gathered all authority to himself. So he has final say over both curriculum decisions as well as the conduct of worship in the chapel. The problem is that–like many Rectors who find themselves in trouble–he apparently has lost the balance in leadership between direction and influence that is essential to function effectively in an environment where checks and balances exist. In a parish, the Vestry holds the purse-strings. A priest can choose to make that relationship essentially adversarial or essentially collaborative. In a parish, congregants can come and go. A rector can choose to write off those who don’t follow as recalcitrant folks who dislike change, or the rector can choose to work the process knowing that most will come along and some won’t but that the community is working together for change–and this takes time, patience, and finesse.

This comes into play in the Dean’s public discussions about the so-called “Wisdom Year.” For him, “Wisdom” comes from the experience of enduring conflict. He has said that what students need to experience in the Wisdom Year is “being beat up.” While he has publicly and repeatedly apologized for using that image, it reflects a bias that “wisdom comes through struggle.”

Add to that the idea that theological knowledge is secondary to practical skills. He has also publicly told people in public forums that a priest’s education is incomplete unless the cleric learns in the “real” world she or he must be able to “fix the toilet.” His perspective is that unless the cleric learns practical considerations of institutional management, the priest will not be successful.

We in this see two different visions of theological education at odds with each other.

The tension comes when those practical considerations are cut loose from theological reflection. Basic questions about how the parishes that are supposed to benefit the most from the wisdom year–marginal, struggling and moribund congregations in various states of transition–can afford and pay for the seminarians sent to them for a year; of how those students will receive useful supervision, peer support, and theological reflection; and how the congregations will both get necessary sacramental ministry and live with the decisions these students make from year to year have not been effectively answered. In the haste to get this model up and running, fundamental questions of both process and mission are left unanswered.

A third perspective the Dean brings is that it appears that the success of the leader can be measured by the resistance he experiences from the system. From this stand-point, collaboration can be dangerous because it allows the leader to live at the mercy of the anxiety of those threatened by change. Again, I hear in his comments about wisdom coming from “being beat up” and protest arising out of “immaturity” as indicative of a perspective that assumes that when people are fighting back, the leaders must be doing something right.

Lastly, Dean Dunkle believes that the Seminary must align itself to be responsive to the general attitudes and trends of the church at large. To be relevant to the culture, the seminary must dare to jettison some long held traditions. So he has ended the practice of daily morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist in favor of a schedule of alternate morning prayers and Eucharists over a few days a week. He has removed some of the pews to make for a space for people to socialize after chapel. And he has discouraged the use of words like “Mass” in describing the Chapel Eucharist or “Solemn” in describing a sung liturgy (in favor of the friendlier “festival”) because, in his view, that’s not now the culture at large speaks about the liturgy.

In the process, the focus on worship that was once the hallmark of life at General changed. Because most parishes don’t worship on a daily basis and most don’t have daily Eucharist, and since the student body is more and more dispersed, the pattern of worship has been changed.

But with this decision, the idea that formation happens in community and that the rhythm of daily office and daily Eucharist anchors the common life of the seminary, even if only a minority of the community was present at any given time (because mandatory Chapel went away decades ago), has been eliminated. The idea at the heart of Hoffman’s grand design of the Close was to combine academics with Chapel life in a way to intensely form priests. There is a reason that the buildings include living spaces and classrooms that center on the Chapel.

Now, this is not to say that worship is at the heart of the tensions with the faculty. The pinch comes when decisions about worship that have a significant impact on the fabric of the community are made by mere fiat. That’s a recipe for turmoil.

There appears to be a profound lack of theological reflection in the process of change that the Dean has undertaken, which along with an impatience with relationship-building, that is strangely at odds with the mission of a seminary to form and prepare priests for mission in parish communities.

After a decade or more of financial instability that required the relief of accumulated debt–through the sale of significant chunks of property– and after many false starts at realigning the mission of the seminary, I believe that the Trustees wanted a strong leader, a man of action, who willing to think outside of the proverbial box. It is entirely possible that the Board is completely sold on and committed to the direction and changes that the Dean has in mind.

I believe that the faculty were as anxious as the Trustees were to have in their Dean someone who was willing to take big risks and make bold moves. What no one expected is that this particular leader would not be at home with collaboration but is instead impatient to get going and get the job done.

The Trustees may have been told that they should expect resistance from the faculty and that this might be seen as a sign of success. They may not want to have any dialogue with the faculty because they feel that they must support the Dean and President no matter what. And they may believe that to mediate conflict or to develop processes to bring in key stake holders in the decision-cycle will de-rail the hard choices to come.

The Trustees, I think, must choose what they understand their primary function to be: let the vision and direction flow from the Dean and President or, alternatively, to be the ones who themselves take responsibility for developing a vision and direction for the seminary. Being an elected and appointed body that represents the wider church, alumni, faculty and students, this will by definition call for collaboration.

In my view, it is not the Dean and President who is in charge of developing the mission and direction of the Seminary, but the Board of Trustees and by extension the General Convention who, after all, “owns” the Seminary in a way that is unique to the seminaries of the Episcopal Church.

There is an interesting parallel process to the recent turmoil uptown at the Metropolitan Opera, who barely avoided a devastating lock-out and salvaged their season when the unions representing the choristers, stagehands, and orchestra wrung out of the Board and Peter Gelb, the artistic director, significant input into the artistic choices of the company, the use of resources to put on productions, and financial accountability.

In that instance, the take-it-or-leave-it style of leadership generated a crisis, perhaps in the hope that the management and board could win concessions and cost savings from the workers and artists who put on the productions. Instead, it alienated the people who made the Opera possible and, worst of all, drove away patrons and donors.

What is happening in Chelsea Square is similar in that the leadership is so intent on their goal and so committed to a single over-riding vision, that they appear to have forgotten who it is they serve, who it is that makes the mission happen and who must live with the decisions in the long run.

It is true that the tone of an organization–parish, seminary, opera company, manufacturer–emanates from the leaders. But it is easy to forget that an organization is organic. The effective leader listens to resistance–from within himself, from within the organization and from outside–because of it is usually sending a message. The leader must choose what stance he or she is going to take towards the people being led. This means choosing his or her approach to the necessary and predictable responses to even ordinary change. If one assumes that the people who are not buying into your vision are incompetent or fearful or wrong, or if people who have a different approach are either saboteurs or terrorists, then all the organization will experience is conflict. The measure of success will be “winning” rather than accomplishing the goal.

It is true that if a leader takes the approach of going along to get along and always accommodates unhappy people, then the organization falls into kind of chaos.

But what is strange here is that fight is among people who essentially agree– but who bring to the table concerns or perspectives that seem distracting or irrelevant to the leader.

This is the second time in a year when a seminary of the Episcopal Church has been wracked by internal strife between administration and faculty. Tom Ehrich wrote about his seminary that he hoped that students would learn that this is not the way to handle conflict. In a similar vein, I hope that the current class of students of my alma mater will learn that visionary, risk-taking leadership is required for the church’s future, but that perhaps this is not the way to go about it.

One may disagree with the approach the faculty has taken…to stay away from classes, meetings and chapel until they have a open and honest conversation with the Board…but after two attempts at mediation have failed–combined with the fact that it has only taken twelve months for this level of crisis to unfold–indicates that leadership has failed to build on the opportunities that their new found financial stability has brought them.

Instead of developing a shared vision, building relationships with all the stakeholders, a solution is imposed as a cure all with the promise that it will change the church. Perhaps that’s the problem. We don’t change the Church. The gathering of God’s people, wherein the Holy Spirit dwells and which demonstrates the face of Christ, changes us.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog “Fun’n’Games in the Kingdom of God.”

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Leslie Nipps

Now that we've had this useful description of one side of the story, I would very much like to encourage The Lead to assign a reporter to the story to look at the big picture and ask the larger systemic questions. It would be a great service to the Church. It's fine to have an advocate for one side of the story, but the danger is that it gives the impression of being THE story, when it obviously is only part of it.

[Leslie - The Lead reached out to the dean and communications office of GTS for comment midday Friday as the story was breaking. We allowed time for a reply. At this writing [Sunday 3PM] we have not received a reply. If we receive a reply, or the dean/trustees/GTS PR issue statements we will cover them. -- eds.]

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Elizabeth Kaeton
Elizabeth Kaeton

Well, after I laughed for a full minute at the delicately nuanced, "most of the faculty at the General Theological Seminary in New York City have decided to refrain from teaching classes . . ., etc." - "Decided to refrain"? They are on strike, for goodness sake! However, I'm grateful for that clear revelation of the author's perspective, right up front, as an alum who is obviously and understandably distressed by what has happened to his beloved seminary and is trying to make sense of it all. Hence, my experience of the abundance of the author's surmises and assumptions and oversimplifications.

I'm an EDS Alum. 1986. As was mentioned in the article, EDS has also been in acute turmoil for the past year. Faculty there are not "striking," per se, but some faculty are leaving - have left - one, after less than a year after having received tenure.

The faculty at EDS chose to take their conflict with the leadership style of the P&D and BOT to the public with a series of "Open Letters." Some of the faculty at GTS have chosen this "strike" as their course of action to deal with their conflict with the P&D and BOT. Which raises a question for me about what is being modeled here, by both faculties, concerning conflict resolution in community. Especially in an age of social media and 24/7 News Cycle.

All that having been said, the author's point about non-collaborative leadership style raises another question for me: Could the leadership style of Jesus with his disciples be described as "collaborative"? Or, for that matter, Peter? Or, Paul? Or James? I'm not condoning one way or the other. I'm simply musing out loud, trying to figure this out along with everyone else.

Which leads to my final question: TEC has, for the past three years, been studying how to re-vision and re-structure our church, including what seems to some as drastic proposals to reduce the legislative process of General Convention and the membership and representation ratio on the CCABs. Having read their reports and 'open letters', I wonder if "change by committee" is any worse or any better than "non-collaborative" (some might say "decisive") style of leadership.

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Seminaries, like other institutions of higher learning, need to have a collaborative relationship between dean/president and the faculty. Without faculty buy-in, change will be defeated. Even where a leader needs to change a campus culture to ensure survival, that leader still needs allies.

Leading any institution of higher learning means you are herding cats. A faculty's greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is their expertise. To not make use of it is to waste the institution's greatest resource. A good leader knows how to tap that expertise without allowing it to become a shield to reject all change.

For a seminary, where part of what should go on is spiritual formation, practical knowledge needs to be tempered with a strong spiritual community. To be a truly Episcopal place, intellect also needs to be valued. I don't think we really need to "form" clergy who are taught that strife and conflict is the norm. I've seen clergy with that perspective and they have nearly destroyed the congregations they served. They need to recognize that disagreement and discussion are part of the Episcopal ethos. Those who confuse strife and discord with growth have not learned how to have a healthy disagreement.

Joan R. Gundersen

formerly an academic dean

and a survivor of the schism in Pittsburgh

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I went through a harrowing time with a food coop in which we changed from top-down, no-recourse to collective management. Until that time, there was a pattern of honey-moon/divorce with general managers. This just did not work with the culture of our 'hood. We changed over to collective management, where all staff has to come to board meetings at least once per year and have to understand administrative things and the chief indicators of health in a very competitive market. Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats are checked in about regularly now, and the staff appreciates that the board keeps on top of these things as well. It was a difficult transition, but completely necessary. We borrowed a manager from Olympia, which has operated this way for some time, and we also had help from Peoples Coop, in Portland with us, who have also operated this way. Everybody has to be on board with the indicators of health, and issues have to get fleshed out among peers. There are areas on the west coast where this type of operation is pretty well worked out. SEMCO, of Brazil, is a model of a corporation that works on a consensual basis. It is fascinating to figure out how to make this kind of operation work. Once it gets going, it is kind of a relief to everybody, because ways of dealing with conflict are clear.

[Swirlingtheuniverse: please sign your name when you comment. Editor]

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Leslie Scoopmire
Leslie Scoopmire

"A third perspective the Dean brings is that it appears that the success of the leader can be measured by the resistance he experiences from the system."

This is the perfect set-up, because it means that he must be the most SUCCESSFUL dean in the world, judging by results.

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